Going with the Flow
By Kim Weeber, teacher. This is a season where we can really acknowledge change. We are just about at the solstice, where the light will start returning. Days will get longer, and nights will get shorter. Even though we are really entering the season of winter, and snow and cold, we know that it will change and spring will come again.
So the solstice gives us an opportunity to celebrate change, and to look forward to something new. And yet, in our lives on a day-to-day basis, we may have some difficulty with the concept and actuality of change.
We work hard to get things in our life to line up so that we can be more comfortable and safe. And then, something goes awry. Something changes. And often, we resist that change.
This is really what the Buddha was talking about when he talked about the 4 Noble truths. There is dukkha, unsatisfactoriness. There are the big things which are difficult such as aging, illness and decay, and death. And then there are the things that we react to. We get what we don’t want, and we don’t get what we want. We lose things that are precious and dear to us.
It is that resistance to life that the Buddha talks about in the 2nd noble truth. The resistance that the Buddha talks about is called tanha, and the closest translation is thirst. It’s more than just liking or not liking something. It is needing to have things a certain way. It is the feeling of having not having had enough water to drink on a really hot day. You really need to have that drink of water and you’re going to get it no matter what.
It is that grasping which causes our suffering. If we don’t resist, there will still be pleasant and unpleasant circumstances. That will never cease. However, when we can be with what is unpleasant without resistance, and with what is pleasant without grasping, there is no suffering.
The Buddha talked about the specific things which we tend to react to. The first is sense experiences. There are many beautiful, wonderful and pleasant experiences to be had. Beautiful scenery, creative artwork, wonderful music, interesting literature, fun people and experiences. And, conversely, there are many challenging and difficult experiences to be had, many of which we are experiencing right now in our country.
The experiences which are pleasant, we tend to turn toward with desire, and try to hold onto, which is grasping. When our experiences are unpleasant, we tend to turn away from them with aversion, and try to push them away, which again is a form of grasping. With experiences which are neither pleasant or unpleasant we tend to not notice them. We are deluded about the fact that of large portion of sense experiences in our lives are neither pleasant or unpleasant. We tend to habitually disconnect from these experiences.
The 2nd noble truth also mentions that we tend to be attached to our views and opinions. And, if somebody has a different view or opinion, we sometimes have a hard time letting them be. We think that we need to make them see things the same way that we do.
The next attachment worth mentioning is our attachment to what are called rights and rituals. Having things be a certain way in our lives. Just to notice if you need to park in the same parking spot when you get to work every day, or have the same meditation cushion in the hall when you arrive at the center. Do you feel like you need to have a particular configuration on your altar if you have one? Or, do you need to sit at the same seat at your dining room table or kitchen table? Some of this referred to the specific rites and rituals that people felt they needed to do in order to progress spiritually. Do you need to light certain candles, bow or chant in a particular way? And what happens if you can’t do these things?
And last but not least is attachment to the sense of self. It appears to us as though we are some fixed, unchanging, everlasting self that somehow inhabits this body mind process and continues through time. And if we feel separate from others in that way, we also feel as though we are going to be hurt more easily by them.
Our newsletter at the Denver Zen Center was called The Empty Boat. The story is that a man was steering his boat across a stream in a fog and couldn’t see well. Out of the fog, he saw what appeared to be a boat coming toward him and he called out so that the people in the boat would change course and they could avoid a collision. However, the boat didn’t change course! He got more angry and called out again for them to change course and avoid a collision. And, after the boats met in midstream, he looked and saw that there was no one in the boat. It was empty.
Are we getting angry at empty boats? Yes, we bump into each other, and yes, we need to treat each other well. But, there is another way of looking at things which acknowledges the fact of interconnectedness instead of just looking at things as being separate. Who am I, and who is this other person, and are we really so separate? And so, in acknowledging that interconnectedness, there is no need for so much reactivity around what is happening.
Going back to the analogy of Going with the Flow, can we be in our boats, floating down the stream, and going with the flow? If there’s a log in the middle of the stream, can we do our best to guide our boat around it without getting upset? If there’s a whirlpool that we get caught in and start swirling around, can we enjoy the swirling ride instead of getting upset? Can we even go with the flow if we get a hole in our boat and we have to swim?
How can we align our lives with the truth of how things are? In doing that more, we can suffer less.
We see ourselves and the world as fixed things due to the way the brain works. We get sense data from our eyes, ears, nose, skin, etc. This data is transmitted into the parts of the brain which gave us general sense impressions. We may get the sense of color, shape and motion. We may feel pressure, warmth, movement or tingling. This data is then sent to brain area which uses memory to enable us to name things and understand what our relationship to them needs to be.
The more primitive parts of the brain, including the part of the brain which processes things through peripheral awareness checks to make sure that there isn’t anything happening that’s going to be dangerous. If there is any danger, we will reflexively react to it before the information even moves up into the frontal cortex where we can have understanding about what’s happening.
If you’ve ever been walking through a densely wooded area, you may have noticed that all of a sudden your head moves out of the way of a branch that you were getting close to before you even noticed the branch. Or, the analogy that is often used as they are walking along the path and all of a sudden jump out of the way of what appears to be a snake. When you look back at it, you realize that it’s a rope. So, our brain processes things at a primitive level first. Later, the mind will add the labels to what it is that we are seeing in doing.
The ability to see things as a table, lamp, chair, is useful. It saves us time and energy, as we can depend on a chair being a chair. We know how to relate to it. We can sit in it. It does not require a lot of processing to figure it out.
And part of the processing that happens is where we can take several events that have occurred sequentially, and move them into episodic memory. In that type of memory, we can get a sense of me, and what happened to me in that series of events.
The sense of self that comes up is also due to the way our brain processes information. In the very most primitive parts of the brain, there is a program that can figure out through sense experience where the boundary of the body is. And everything inside that boundary becomes me, and everything outside that boundary becomes somebody or something else.
We also have a sense of self that comes about through the higher mind function which we call the ego. So we have both of these functioning, and making it appear as though were separate from everything else.
But, is that really the deepest truth of the way things are? Perhaps, we can start to see in our own experience that these boundaries are much more fluid than we thought. This is part of what we are doing in meditation. We are starting to look carefully enough at our experience, that we can see more deeply than our perceptions, and start to see the actual sense experiences. We can start to notice that the experience of seeing a flower is not the same as the word flower. We can start to experience that the word breath is not the same as the felt experience of breathing.
And we can start to see that this person that we call me, is not so fixed and easily identifiable.
What is this me? Constantly changing sense experiences and thoughts. Sights, sounds, smells, tastes, and physical sensations come and go. Thoughts and emotions come and go. If we carefully examine this experience, is there anything in there that we can really hold onto and say that it is me?
We know that the cells in our body are constantly changing. The skin that we have now is not the same as the skin that we were born with. Certainly the hair and the nails aren’t the same. We have new blood cells which reproduce regularly, and even our bones, which feel so solid and unchanging, are living tissues which constantly is growing and changing and adapting to stress. And of course, the body is continually aging and breaking down. Can we find anything in here which is me?
One of the most important part of the path in a meditation is the ability to start to notice how our experience is continually changing. The breath is the perfect object for this if you are able to stay with the breath and it’s comfortable for you. If not, you can always use the sensations in another part of the body or use hearing.
When we first start to meditate, we are usually experiencing more of our concept of the breath rather than the actual felt physical experience of it. But, as time goes on we can start to notice the actual sensations of the breath. The warmth, coolness, pressure, little tingling sensations, and even times were it feels like there’s no sensation. By allowing the felt experience of the body to start to seep into our consciousness, we can start to get more of an idea of what impermanence is.
It’s not that there is something, an object, which changes, it’s that there is nothing but change.
As soon as we sit down to first started meditating, we start to become aware of our thoughts. And, frequently we are identified with them. But, they are constantly changing. The thoughts that we had when we were young children or teenagers, are probably not the thoughts that we have now. And our thoughts change with our circumstances, as we tend to process about them and react to them.
And frequently, we can have conflicting thoughts about the same day. For instance, all of the traits that people may be trying to share with us at this time of year. On the one hand, it’s wonderful and they’re delicious, and why not enjoy the? On the other hand, is all this sugar really good for my health? Let alone my waistline? I’m sure were all very aware of the inner battles that can go on between one part of myself and another about some of these issues.
So, which one is the real self? Can we find that self somewhere in these thoughts?
And then as far as emotions go, they are also constantly changing. Because they can be so intense, they may feel even more like who I really am. But when we look at it carefully, they arise due to causes and conditions. And they change all the time. And we can’t control them. So how could they be me?
What would it be like to be this whole experience of being a person as a continuous flow of experience and change? What if this is life happening through me, rather than life happening to me? What if this flow of life doesn’t need to be resisted?
There is an analogy that people use for awakening which is helpful to explore.
You decide to go parachuting. You’re up high in the plane, you have your chute on, and you’re pushed out the door by the instructor. For a few moments you are scared, and then you start to enjoy freefall. However, when you pull the cord of your chute, it doesn’t open!
In most cases, this would cause terror as you are hurtling toward the ground in freefall, because, you know you’re going to die when you hit the ground. But, when the mind stops grasping onto the idea of me and mine, there is an awakening, and you have the experience of knowing that there is no one who is going to die, and there is no ground. You can simply relax and go with the flow.
Talk given at Insight Meditation Center of Pioneer Valley